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Back to Business

How area companies are learning to coexist with the coronavirus.

You can sense normalcy coming back to people’s lives in South Jersey. Restaurants are open for outdoor dining, various fitness studios were recently given the clearance to reopen and people are getting back to workin the office.
 
While quite a few relished working from home, whether it was enjoying not making the long commute to the office or getting to spend more time with family, many South Jersey employees are eager to get back to the camaraderie in the office and catch up with coworkers in person instead of over Zoom.
 
As more people are making their way back to their desks, companies are changing their safety protocols and taking big steps to make sure their offices are compliant with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines, in addition to adding plexiglass shields and staggering employees throughout the office.
 
Lauletta Birnbaum was ahead of the pandemic and didn’t even know it. Besides every attorney having a private office, prior to COVID-19, each administrative assistant’s cubicle was separated by glass. For extra safety since employees started working in the office, they moved a few seats around to make sure they were away from each other.
 
“They are Herman Miller glass cubicles with walls around them and cabinets,” managing partner Frank Lauletta says. “It’s like their own private office.”
 
Roughly 30 percent of its employees are back in the office and Lauletta says it grows by the week. At the same time, employees are still given the option to work from home or remotely.
 
“Everybody has different levels of anxiety with COVID-19,” he says. “Most want to get back in the office because they like working together. They wear a mask and are socially distant. Others who are older and feel more susceptible having long-term health risks opt to work from home, which is fine. Everybody wants to be back for the most part. At this point, about one-third of the staff is back. We’ll probably be at 50 percent over the next few weeks. We’re trying to continually modify the office and make sure everyone is comfortable. We’re learning as things go, too, and have made changes to the office.”
 
Changes such as adding hand sanitizer stations and more office cleanings, and discouraging in-person meetings in lieu of conference calls. Besides signing wills that need signatures, everything has been done remotely.
 
“Our employees are paramount. For them to be happy and working in an environment where they feel safe is beneficial,” Lauletta says. “From a client perspective, like most companies are experiencing, there’s not that much of an impact on the client-attorney relationship as a result of working remotely together.”
 
Besides a few employees going to the office to grab something here or there, all of NEMR Total HR’s employees are working remotely. President Steve Sweeney says they probably won’t be back until January, but they are allowing employees to voluntarily come back Sept. 8 because of a four-page safety plan that has been put in place which includes many modifications to the office.
 
“We put plexiglass dividers between all workstations, we have provided PPE for all employees and provided them with masks and hand sanitizer,” Sweeney says. “We installed a touchless key touch so they can open doors and make copies without touching anything. We have installed touchless hand sanitizing stations throughout the workplace. We’ve had HVAC contractors clean units with special cleaning agents that kill viruses and we have set up the main conference room with floor stickers to show where they are allowed to sit and can be socially distant. We want to make sure when they come back, they feel safe and protected.
 
“We have employees who are chomping at the bit to come back to the office just to regain that sense of being in the office. I would say at least 60 percent of people are looking forward to coming back. I think everyone wants to get back in some form of hybrid model—come in a few days a week and work from home a day or two.”
 
Grimley Financial Corporation is taking that same hybrid model approach and has slowly brought close to half of its employees back to the office, around 10 people, according to operations manager Kristen Grimley Kavanagh.
 
“We’re coming up with a staggering pattern with a few in and a few out each day, so the same group of people isn’t in the office each day. Aside from that, he’s taking the seriousness of the situation and letting employees continue to work from home. I know he doesn’t expect to be 100 percent back anytime soon,” she says.
 
At family law firm Charny Karpousis Altieri & Donoian, about 80 percent of employees are back full-time while the rest are working remotely and changes have been made at their office as well, from taking safety precautions in the office to meeting with clients virtually instead of in person.
 
“Our attorneys stay in their offices and if you leave, you have to wear a facemask,” partner Nicole Donoian says. “We have two copy centers so no one is using the machines at the same time. We’re not bringing people into the office, it’s all done remotely over Zoom, Microsoft Teams or by phone. Only two people are allowed in the elevator at a time, but we all take the stairs. Hand sanitizers are everywhere and we installed air purifiers. We follow CDC guidelines to make sure everyone is observing social distancing and is safe.
 
“I missed the camaraderie. We all get along well, I missed seeing my partners and everyone else at work. The thing is, nobody is standing around chatting anymore because we’re all social distancing.”
 
Then there are those who didn’t have the option to work from home due to being an essential employee, if certain work wasn’t able to get done remotely, or if the workspace is small enough where one, two or three employees could work in the same space and be socially distant.
 
That was the case with Grimley Financial. Since the biggest sector they work with is health care, Kavanagh said it would have been detrimental if no employees were in the office.
 
“If we don’t receive mail for insurance companies, it could put things at a standstill,” she says. “We had a core unit of three people in our offices who had to wear many different hats. They were 20 to 30 feet apart the whole time with two of the three employees being family members.”
 
It was a similar situation at Proforma Dynamic Solutions in West Berlin. Partner Kirk Lind says someone had to be at the office the entire time because they have inventory and have to ship products after they are requested online. Two employees, including him, have been there since mid-March, and little by little more employees are making their way back to the office.
 
The majority of their interaction with customers was in person, and adapting to meeting with clients virtually over Zoom was—and still is—a big adjustment.
 
“I used to typically leave the office and go see customers at 1:30 every day—that doesn’t happen anymore,” Lind says. “More and more of your business is getting done through emails. Those personal face-to-face meetings and talking to people, that’s completely changed.”
 
But his employees have certainly been making the most of it the past few months. Since there have been no events, there’s no promotional products, printed T-shirts and coffee mugs to sell to companies. Instead, they have been selling face masks, plexiglass shields and social distancing signs you see on the floor in grocery stores—items that are essential and are helping people stay safe.
 
“You feel good because you're helping the people you’re selling it to, but it also pays the bills,” Lind says.
 
South Jersey Industries (SJI) has had a mix of essential workers in the field working this entire time and employees working remotely.
 
“Our essential employees fortunately can be socially distant and they absolutely have the PPE (personal protective equipment) to make sure they are staying safe and able to give out service to our 700,000 customers,” says Kathleen Larkin, senior vice president and chief human resources officer at SJI. “For those who work in a building every day, we, like other businesses, immediately started to work remotely and we did that very effectively.”
 
Between the effectiveness of working from home and keeping its employees safe, the majority are still working remotely, but SJI is currently exploring all options and communicating with its employees often.
 
“There is a small subset of roles where it would be helpful to work from the office, and we ask ourselves, how can we stage that in a modest way; to be able to go in and access what they need in a safe way? That’s what we’re looking at now while continuing to monitor CDC and state guidelines alike,” Larkin says. “We have done surveys and our employees shared that they are very grateful for how management is putting safety first. They miss being together and the culture of being a family, but appreciate the measures we’re taking.”

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Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Biz, Volume 10, Issue 7 (July 2020).

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Author: Julie Shannon

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